Thursday, June 28, 2007

Henry Adams - Dynamo and the Virgin

We are having great fun - at least I am - reading exerpts from The Education of Henry Adams, in particular the chapter "The Dynamo and the Virgin." Adams' excitement at seeing the great forces that have been unleased in the new century and contrasting them to the motivation of religion and the great cathedrals it built such as the cathedral at Amiens and the sculptures of his friend St. Gaudens, especially the powerful statue of General Grant with the Victory. (see the picture above from I hope the students are getting excited about the concept of force and power in writing as well. We looked at the 300-word sentence in Martin Luther King Jr's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" for a really powerful way to express their need for justice now.

The "Letter from Birmingham Jail" should connect nicely to Freire's "Banking Concept of Education" which is our topic for Monday.


Friday, June 22, 2007

Democracy now?

One of the benefits of reading student papers is learning more about subject I'm interested in. A recent student paper on the effects of terrorism (economic benefits to some corporations), cited the book The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oil Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media that Love Them, by Amy Goodman with David Goodman (New York: Hyperion, 2004). The comments cited intrigued me enough to get the book on inter-library loan and read parts. One of the claims is the as a journalist, Amy Goodman tries to visit places that have been silenced, places that have no democratic voice in the news, whether due to government censorship and control or to stifling competition by global media corporations. Goodman mentions one free radio network for dissent: Democracy Now through the Pacifica network.

I had thought that NPR was fairly liberal - at least that is what the conservatives always complain - but one of my colleagues (see the previous post) claims that NPR is not very liberal, being required to have 2 conservative guests for every liberal one. He says that NPR is mostly just centered, with a very slight liberal slant. Goodman says the same thing: "On any given day, you can listen to the news on CNN or National Public Radio, then tune in to a Pacific station. You would think you were hearing reports from different planets" (5).

This Democracy Now, however, is supposedly an alternative to the media conglomerates and a place where the real truth can be heard, where dissent is not muzzled, and where the reality is free from the official line (255). Goodman says "people are so hungry for independent media -- and are starting to make their own" (7), which is about what Al Gore is saying.

"Assault on Reason"

Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason was reviewed on June 10 in the Oregonian by Les Au Coin, Oregon's former congressman, in the article "A reasonable truth: Gore takes off the gloves." AuCoin sums up Gore's project saying:
Now comes [after Inconvenient Truth ] "The Assault on Reason," which warns against a threat not to the natural environment but to the American political environment and democracy itself.
and continues by outlining four main arguments or themes under this umbrella. [For an excerpt from Assault on Reason in Time magazine May 17, 2007, click here.]

1 -- The first deals with the way that broadly expanded and accessible literacy (due to explosion of printing with moveable type) opened knowledge and speaking beyond the elite.

2 -- The second claims that now, however, the corporate globalized media has not opened knowledge and the power of words further, but rather closed down public participation in information.
Says AuCoin:
By blurring news and entertainment -- especially on television "news," where most Americans get their information -- they sate the public with journalistic air balls such as Britney Spears' shaved head and Anna Nicole Smith's baby, disproportionately leaving too much consequential information in the hands of elites.
A quick survey of the news programs would confirm this. And the corporate broadcasters claim that they only "give the people what they want." (Their same argument in defense of all the sleaze they show.) Even PBS cannot get in all the "real" news.

I always thought that PBS, the PUBLIC system constantly criticized by conservatives as too liberal, would have the real news. But, according to a journalist friend of mine, PBS does not or cannot present a truly liberal perspective because it is constrained by the government funding to have 2 conservative speakers for every 1 liberal.

3 -- The third claim is that without complete access to what is really going on (with American TV viewers mesmerized by Info-Tainment), voters don't know and can't think about what is happening in places of power. AuCoin shows Gore's point:
Eschewing the free exercise of reason in public affairs, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have "taken us further down the road toward an intrusive 'Big Brother'-style of government -- toward the dangers prophesized by George Orwell in his book "1984" -- than anyone ever thought would be possible."

What is the solution? According to AuCoin, Gore sees the Internet as the way that the public, anyone, can counteract the government's (the powerful) hold on knowledge and truth. Certainly the internet does open more knowledge more widely, though not everyone has access to a computer and internet, so there is still a digital divide in power/knowledge.

Further, I keep hearing that there are new proposals for variable internet speed would make some sites more quickly accessible (those of rich conglomerates) while the small or independent sites would be harder to find. I keep wondering if this is a real proposal or another of those urban hoaxes that go around. However, apparently the new postal rates are set up to heavily favor the mass mailers and penalize the small presses, which is a parallel to the internet access question, so maybe this proposal is not a hoax. Certainly, it would make perfect sense for those in power to restrict as much as possible access to information.

However, AuCoin sees problems with Gore's confidence in the internet:
Gore believes when the Internet reaches its potential it may well eclipse the mainstream media and its "one-way" communication of "infotainment" with a spirited, interactive exercise of grass-roots reason and analysis.

Gore's prescription suffers in contrast to his erudite diagnosis of the problem. He ignores, for instance, the habit of blog readers to frequent sites that support their biases and ignore sites that don't, behavior that falls short of thesis, antithesis and synthesis -- analysis that guards against any assault on reason.
Although AuCoin's reservations about how/what people read online may be true, these same reservations can be launched against the way people read newspapers: turn to the sports or the comics or the TV guide.

If information is free and relatively easy to get, the people at least have a chance at leveling the playing field which is essential for democracy. After all, if the internet were not so powerful, why would countries such as China work so hard to censor it?

Note: It is interesting to look back at what John F. Harris and Shailagh Murray of the Washington Post said about Assault on Reason back in September 2006 when Gore started it.

Note #2: Here's an excerpt from the excerpt which is perfectly relevant to our WR 222 class:

As a college student, I wrote my senior thesis on the impact of television on the balance of power among the three branches of government. In the study, I pointed out the growing importance of visual rhetoric and body language over logic and reason. There are countless examples of this, but perhaps understandably, the first one that comes to mind is from the 2000 campaign, long before the Supreme Court decision and the hanging chads, when the controversy over my sighs in the first debate with George W. Bush created an impression on television that for many viewers outweighed whatever positive benefits I might have otherwise gained in the verbal combat of ideas and substance. A lot of good that senior thesis did me.

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Solstice - Light & Darkness

Yesterday was the summer solstice and maybe also the longest day. According to some calendars it is the first day of summer although in the Celtic calendar, it's Midsummer Day, which makes more sense. The Celtic calendar features the solstices and equinoxes as the middle or height of the season, and the first day on the "cross quarter days." Therefore, summer starts on May Day or Beltane, and Winter starts on Halloween (Samhein), so that the winter solstice, December 21, is Midwinter.

I love the long daylight this time of year. It's so easy to get up at 5:20 in the light; by contrast, it's so depressing to get up in the pitch dark, just 6 months away, in midwinter. So today is always a bit sad because it means that more darkness is on the way.


Monday, June 18, 2007

Richard Rorty -- and Mike Rose

What I know of Richard Rorty is a column he wrote about education and a challenge to it by Mike Rose. Having just learned of Rorty's death - see New York Times obituary - I now want to go back and find that material, which I quoted in my master's thesis on Mike Rose. But reading the obituary I was at first quite taken with a quote attributed to Rorty which a later correction in the NYT clarifies:
An obituary on Monday about the philosopher Richard Rorty misidentified the source of the quotation, “There is no basis for deciding what counts as knowledge and truth other than what one’s peers will let one get away with in the open exchange of claims, counterclaims and reasons.” It was from Charles Guignon and David R. Hiley in the introduction to the book “Richard Rorty,” (review here) which they edited; it was not from Mr. Rorty.
This question of epistemology is of interest in our rhetoric classes when students want the truth. What about Wikipedia, for example.

Meanwhile, another connection between Rose and Rorty comes from Jeff Smith's article in College English
College English, Vol. 55, No. 7 (Nov., 1993), pp. 721-744: "Allan Bloom, Mike Rose, and Paul Goodman: In Search of a Lost Pedagogical Synthesis." But this is not the interchange I recall. A quick Google search did not bring it up, so I will have to do some looking at home.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Video Games & Violence, Complicated

Students frequently want to write their argument papers about video games and whether they do or do not cause the players to become violent in real life. I try to complicate their thinking by steering them to James Paul Gee's book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (reviewed here). Today I found on the Chronicle of Higher Ed's Wired Campus Blog another way to complicate and enrich that thinking: Games for Social Change. Consider the new game Darfur is Dying that enables a player to experience remotely a sense of what life is like for Africans trying to survive the brutal attacks of the Janjaweed. And in fact, I learned that there is a "Games for Change" conference that just finished at the New School in New York City, which promotes working toward social justice and change in the world through video games. The conference program lists such games as A Force More Powerful, which, according to the G4C conference:
is the first and only game to teach the waging of conflict using nonviolent methods. Destined for use by activists, the game will also educate the media and general public on the potential of nonviolent action and serve as a simulation tool for academic studies of nonviolent resistance. AFMP is primarily a game of strategy, emphasizing abstract ideas and planning. Its realism depends on the accuracy of its underlying political models.
Other games include Airport Security, Ayiti: The Cost of Life, Homeless: It's No Game,ICED! I Can End Deportation,Karma Tycoon, and Oil God among others.

The next time my students propose to write about video games and violence I can offer them a deeper look at the topic.


Thursday, June 07, 2007

Women in Art - on YouTube

This You-Tube video of Women in Art is quite interesting, though my initial reaction was surprise at how similar the faces were - an ideal look apparently, at least until the modern era. A YouTube blogger notes that the first image is actually not a woman but the Archangel Gabriel, but angels are agendered beings in my view, so that's OK with me.

I would have liked a "works cited" page listing the images and artists. That's the academic in me - Intellectual Property - and my original degree in Art History.

Note: This video does not work well with a dial-up internet connection.

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Critical Thinking Skills for Everyone

Currently, I am reading about the effects of college education on the expanding critical thinking skills of students. And when I saw today Jacqueline Sage's article "Do You ThinkYou Can Teach Our Students?" from the Chronicle of Higher Education I wanted to see how she addresses the question of teaching critical thinking at all levels. Sage is currently job hunting, with her Ivy League degree, and considering teaching positions at community colleges, where, she senses from their attitudes that the focus for (and maybe from) students is on practical vocational training and not abstract reasoning. She says:

I had thought that my upbringing would help me relate to students both at community colleges and at the state university where I have been teaching as a lecturer. After all, I come from the same urban, working-class background as many of the students -- with one glaring exception. I was the self-motivated overachiever who ended up in the Ivy League. I may have worked my way through school, holding two jobs in addition to a full course load, but I also ended up in graduate school rather than a practical profession. I am already committed to learning and, particularly, to a type of learning with which many of the students at community colleges and at my state university are unfamiliar.

She wants to share with her students now the advantages in learning that she received in the Ivy League. She wants them to move up to her level of critical thinking. And to do this, she says:

I structure my courses to teach students how to think critically and argue logically about social issues. It's an approach that students at more elite universities simply take for granted as the proper structure of a course. The same is not true of my state-university students, who constantly ask me, "Why are we learning this?"

Apparently, then, the students do not appreciate her efforts. And for Sage, another dilemma arises: If the students say "Why are we learning this?" she feels "Why am I teaching this?" given that the students don't seem motivated the way she was. She worries about the effect on her of these unmotivated students. She says:

In addition, I began to ask myself whether I could be happy teaching courses geared toward a more practical level of knowledge rather than philosophical principles and the evolution of ideas. I didn't think I could. I could only imagine my boredom,

Clearly, if she feels she would be bored trying to help less advantaged students move into the higher realms of critical thinking, then teaching at a community college is not a good fit for her. In fact she says she already feels a mismatch at the state university where she is currently teaching:

I already faced a communication and expectations dilemma at the state university where I teach and to which many of those same community-college students would transfer. Not only did many of my students complain about the workload, but I had some who thought my vocabulary was too difficult, my expectations too high, and my style of teaching unclear because I tended to ask questions within my lectures and considered multiple authors in one argument rather than going in a strictly linear mode from author to author.

If I already face obstacles in the classroom at a state university, I reasoned, how much worse would it be at a community college?

Anyone with such an attitude would clearly not be happy teaching at a community college. Maybe Sage needs to read Alfred Lubrano's book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams where, reviewer Richard Jensen quotes:

"I am two people. I now live a middle-class life, working at a white-collar newspaperman's job, but I was born blue collar. I've never reconciled the dichotomy. This book is a step toward understanding what people gain and what they leave behind as they move from the working class to the middle class" (1). Lubrano's goal "was to write a book about an existing social class, the white-collar children—first-generation college graduates— [End Page 440] of blue-collar parents, and to write one that would be accessible to those without a Ph.D." (1).

Maybe Sage needs to read Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary: variously subtitled A Moving Account of or The Struggles and Achievements of America's Underprepared. According to the blurb on the MikeRose.Com website posted by his publisher Penguin, Lives on the Boundary adresses the issues that Jacquelline Sage raises in her job hunting dilemma, but from a different, more generous perspective.

Remedial, illiterate, intellectually deficient--these are the stigmas that define the educational underclass to which Mike Rose once belonged. Here, he tells of his personal journey from inner-city Los Angeles to a major research university, bringing a vital challenge to those who must shape America's educational agenda.
Rose has continued to write about the intellectual capacities of all our students and would surely hope that Sage could see her way clear to tackle the important task fo sharing critical thinking with all students. Or, if she thinks she would be bored, then she should stay away, as her articles concludes she will.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Nearly the end of spring term

It is Friday evening at the end of week 9 (or 10 weeks) and everyone is focused on the end of term. Some of our students are thinking about graduation, and we could remind them of the goals of education. Here are two essays to read. The newer one is from The New Yorker by Louis Menard called "The Graduates." Theolder one is a classic from Harper's 2003 by John Gatto, "Against School." Both essays could be good material for an essay on education. In fact, if our graduates cannot answer these questions or share their own perspective on education at this point, then I wonder how their minds were opened in their four years here at OSU.

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